Jay Boyer, a student at San Diego Mesa College, sought help from the Rising Scholars Network after finding herself homeless upon her release from jail. Brittany Cruz-Fejeran for CalMatters

The first time Danny Muñoz went to jail, he was only 14. He was in and out of the justice system for the next few decades, starting with minor offenses like fighting before moving on to more serious charges as an adult. In 2016, he survived being shot five times. It was a wake-up call. The next year, Muñoz was released from jail for what he decided would be the last time. He hasn’t been back since.

A key reason? His determination to get a degree, fueled by the support of a program at his community college called R.I.S.E. — Restorative Integrated Self Education — designed to help formerly incarcerated students navigate higher education.

The main difference between school with and without the support of R.I.S.E., Muñoz says, was peace of mind. Besides assisting students with the logistics of getting a degree, the program also offered a sense of community. Whether it was technology, textbook stipends, enrollment assistance, financial aid, graduation stoles or emotional support, “R.I.S.E. is gonna figure it out for us, you know?” he said.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that for the first time provides ongoing state support for programs such as R.I.S.E. at 50 community colleges around California. The state will spend $10 million each year to provide services to formerly incarcerated students, track the impact of the programs and examine whether they should be replicated at all of the state’s community colleges.

The effort, called the Rising Scholars Network, comes as the number of incarcerated students enrolled in the community college system has grown dramatically, from a few hundred seven years ago to more than 10,000 today, according to the network’s Bay Area coordinator, Kellie Nadler. That’s due in part to a 2014 law that allowed community colleges to receive the same level of state funding for students behind bars as students on campuses. Experts estimate the number of formerly incarcerated students currently studying at community colleges is in the thousands as well.

But unlike at the University of California and California State University, there has so far not been any system-wide effort to help those community college students transition to higher education. A small, pilot version of the Rising Scholars Network has existed for the past few years; the new funding will help it expand.

“Community colleges are the workhorse of higher education,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat and the new law’s author.

They serve more individuals with criminal records than either the UC or CSU. Campuses are often closer to home, and they offer career certificates and other programs that four-year colleges may not carry. And, McCarty added, they’re the most accessible for justice-involved students; competitive admission and longer application processing times at a UC or Cal State campus can create more hurdles in what is already a complicated process.

Track record of success

Programs similar to Rising Scholars promote academic and professional success for formerly incarcerated students, studies have shown. Students involved in Project Rebound, a state-funded program serving students with criminal records at Cal State, earned an average GPA of 3.0 between 2016 and 2020, according to a report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, with none returning to prison and 87% finding full-time jobs after graduation.

Stanford Law School published a study in 2020 finding that nearly half of formerly incarcerated students studying at community colleges with support programs achieved a 4.0 GPA during the time of the study. More than 80% had a GPA higher than 3.0.

Programs in the Rising Scholars Network also help students transfer to four-year colleges and universities. After giving the keynote address when he graduated last year from Chabot College in Hayward, Muñoz transferred to UC Berkeley, where he is a student employee for Underground Scholars. He helps potential transfer students with their applications, a process he just went through himself.

He said the most common concern he comes across is students worrying about oversharing their personal experiences in application essays. He encourages them to share as much as they can.

“This is the kind of thing that shows [universities] the resiliency in us, the adversity that we’ve overcome and our desire to do more and to do better, not only for ourselves, but for others,” he said.

Joe Louis Hernandez, the Rising Scholars director at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, knows firsthand how difficult navigating college can be after incarceration. He spent time in jail as a young adult before getting his life back on track. He started attending the school he now works at several years ago but dropped out at age 22, he said, uninspired and unsure of the future. It took six more years before he started his college journey in earnest, and now he’s a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach.

It’s powerful, Hernandez said, to give students something he didn’t have: connections to formerly incarcerated staff throughout the school. “That’s what I missed. I was going through school on the hope and a prayer of maybe being hired, but now we can tell them, ‘No, this is what you can see.’”

Many students, Hernandez said, come to college not knowing that they can aim for what they want to do most. Seeing formerly incarcerated people working in professional settings can be inspirational.

Jay Boyer, a formerly incarcerated student at San Diego Mesa College, is an aspiring fashion designer and business owner, dreams she put on hold when she first dropped out of college in 2000. Boyer was recently incarcerated for two months for what was supposed to be a three-day penalty for missing a court date, a discrepancy she said was caused by paperwork errors and a miscommunication with her attorney. It is her only experience in jail, but she’s found that it has affected nearly every aspect of her life. For starters, she’d lost her apartment while incarcerated and had to begin living in her car.

Going back to school seemed unlikely, but a mentor helped her find Rising Scholars at Mesa. They helped her enroll in spring 2021 and pointed her to organizations that could assist with her housing search. She realized she had a community rooting for her success.

“It helps take a lot of the pressure off because I don’t feel like I’m misunderstood,” she said.

Boyer hopes having a degree will help level the playing field for her in a job market that’s stacked against applicants with past convictions. Even with a degree, formerly incarcerated people can still face an uphill battle to find well-paying jobs.

In 2018, California implemented a law that prevents both public and private employers from asking about past convictions on job applications, but it doesn’t prohibit background checks. Although Boyer’s charge has been reduced to a misdemeanor, it still has appeared in several background reports, and in one instance led to a job offer being withdrawn. She says a degree is a chance to affirm that she can pursue a future she wants, and provide for her children.

Next steps

With the Rising Scholars Network now launched, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office will figure out how to distribute the funding.

Muñoz said the new network can make a difference for formerly incarcerated students who might otherwise be alienated when they encounter staff who don’t understand their unique circumstances. He remembers when he initially decided to go to college; his first stop was California State University East Bay. He went knocking on doors asking about how to enroll, and said he was given the run-around and left without knowing anything more than when he arrived. That experience led him to Chabot, where he found a community of students and mentors through R.I.S.E.

Now Muñoz is studying sociology at UC Berkeley. One day he hopes to help write the next state policies that will open up even more educational opportunities for people like him.

One of the biggest challenges formerly incarcerated students face, he said, is not just the fear of how they are perceived by others, but also how they see themselves.

“We can get in our own way at times, and I think that’s the biggest thing,” Muñoz said. “It’s because of the stigma, you know, it’s because of the way society views us, and the way it makes us doubt ourselves.”

Emily Forschen is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. Open Campus works with student journalists in the College Journalism Network through a partnership with CalMatters.